In my column this week, I started out writing about guns, and soon realized I was writing about Jewish boundaries. The gun debate was only a framework onwhich to hang an argument between those who argue that halakhic Judaism is the only “authentic” expression of Judaism, and those, like me, who believe that Jewish ethnic and cultural tendencies, even at their most secular, are also our birthright.
In other words, liberalism (to take one example) hasn’t “superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right,” as Norman Podhoretz insists. Jewish liberalism, even where it disagrees with halakha, is an authentic expression of Jewish history and culture. Our Jewish expressions are the sum total of our history, religion, sociology, geography, and pathologies (and we have a few). To say something isn’t Jewish because it doesn’t follow the halakha is a convenient way to negate hundreds if not thousands of years of Jewish self-understanding.
In my column I used guns as an example of the powerful notion of “goyishe naches” — that is, something Jews understand to be a “gentile thing.” I don’t mean to imply anything negative about gentiles or guns. I mean that throughout our history of exclusion and assimilation, Jews often defined themselves in opposition to the behaviors of “others.” That’s true of kashrut, but it is also true of a host of cultural markers. I suspect that the Jewish aversion to alcohol also developed as a response to the behaviors of non-Jews. So did our allergy to Wonder Bread.
(Yes, yes, these are stereotypes. More than one reader has pointed that out. But sometimes stereotypes develop because they are grounded in truth. Not every Jew favors gun control, and some of our grandparents were alcoholics. But there are strong tendencies in every group that cannot be denied out of fear what “others” might say.)
I insist that these sorts of folk behaviors are every bit as “Jewish” as the 613 mitzvot — maybe not in the ledger as recorded by Moses and maintained by the rabbis, but in the ”cultural DNA” that has created a sense of shared Jewish experience of which halakha is only one ingredient.
At least one reader got my point:
Andrew- gutsy and great piece. I have no problem with gun ownership. I do have a problem with those who decide that they and they alone determine who is authentically Jewish. The argument could be made that it is the “single issue” pro-gun advocates in the jewish community who are highly assimilated-they put gun ownership and political advocacy above and beyond the many halakhic issues raised by guns. (See J David Bleich on the halakhic problems raised by selling guns, for example.)
This discussion is bound to get more important the closer we get to November. The polls are going to show a decline in Jewish support for Obama, but nothing like the huge paradigm shift some Republicans are suggesting. And when Obama does get his 60-65 percent of the Jewish vote, disappointed Republicans will say that a lot of those Jewish voters are Jews In Name Only, and that the only “Jewish vote” that counts is among the most religious or most pro-Israel Jews.
Thee is another aspect to this, and that is the decline of Jewish “ethnicity.” What Steven M. Cohen calls the ”collective aspect of Jewish identity and community” (which I think is pretty close to my notion of “cultural DNA”) is clearly on the decline. This “social tissue” (as opposed to religious conviction) is what tied together my parents’ and grandparents’ generations as Jews, even as they drifted away from religion. So yes, if current trends aren’t disrupted or prove unsustainable, you will see American Jewry becoming smaller and more religious, as the non-religous fade into a post-ethnic, post-endogamous (look it up) twilight.
But the topic under discussion is not contuity. It is how we live now. If ethnic Judaism is not up to challenges of freedom and modernity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t Jewish.